New Orleans: Not The Typical Food Post

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I hate to disappoint those who are seeking a gluttonous New Orleans food tour dripping in butter and hot sauce (okay, there’s a little of that), but this post will be a little different. I made the trip as a guest of Rachel’s Network, an alliance of women that supports female leaders who want to be agents of change for environmental protection. Some highlights: Mayor Mitch Landrieu talked to us about the city’s reliance on the oil industry, a local fisherman steered us through the bayou (which loses the equivalent of a football field of marshland per hour), architects cooperating with Dutch water control experts walked us through the Ninth Ward (devastated by Hurricane Katrina) to see the new “green housing” pioneered by Brad Pitt, and—I didn’t forget you, foodies—we dined with Chef John Besh, who is decidedly an agent of change in his own community.

The sunset over the Mississippi River as we landed. Hate to ruin the moment, but we soon learned that the agricultural runoff draining from 31 states to the north has created ecological dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico.

But First, The Food

Before we get into the environmental challenges this city endures, let’s enjoy the amazing tradition of food it has cultivated. There was one restaurant I just had to fit in to my visit: Cochon. All I knew is that 1) everyone who goes to New Orleans talks about it, and 2) it has pig parts. The waitress made two recommendations and they were the best things we ate (believe me, we ordered much more than this after an all-day flight and an abandoned airport salad).

Cochon’s wood-fired oysters with butter and hot sauce. We were going to order these again for dessert but the kitchen closed on us with no warning. Buzzkill alert!

Cochon’s smoked pork ribs in a tangy sauce with a kick of vinegar and “watermelon pickle”; and yes, the meat fell right off the bone. The finger-licking flavors reminded me of my long-coveted Cajun wings at NYC’s Great Jones Café. If I lived here, I would probably. live. here.

I dare you to pronounce the name on the street sign, especially after the “Swinekiller” cocktails we had.

Speaking of cocktails, I dragged a few of the conference ladies to Cure in Uptown on the advice of a friend who said it was one of the best places for drinks in the South. Here, the signature Sazerac, with Thomas H. Handy cask strength rye whiskey, Vieux Pontarlier absinthe (wait, what?), Demerara sugar, and lemon peel. Yep, I’m pretty sure this was the reason I was unusually chatty at dinner that night.

On the sweet side, a mandatory tourist stop is Café du Monde for coffee and beignets (fried dough covered in powdered sugar) and any of the fancy restaurants has a version of Bananas Foster (this one is at Arnaud’s—ooh, lookie here, I found the recipe!). I’m not a dessert person, but I could have easily gone for seconds (I blame the absinthe).

New Orleans and the Oil Refineries

We were honored to preface dinner at Arnaud’s with a visit from Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who had a handful of Southern-charm stories to keep the ladies laughing, but he also didn’t escape without a proper grilling over the stranglehold the oil companies have on this city. That’s when I knew I liked this group. There is deference and respect paid to busy people who have taken valuable time to speak with them, but they also seize the opportunity to speak directly about the contradictions they see, and they have a low tolerance for political spin.

The next day, we took a bus to the Barataria Preserve in Jean Lafitte National Historic Park, south of New Orleans, and outside of the levee perimeter. This gave a sense of the rapidly receding marshland, as did a boat tour on the bayou that afternoon, where we saw signs that warned of “no dredging” due to the presence of underwater oil pipelines. According to Mayor Landrieu and the Louisiana Oil & Gas Association, the state is the leading domestic producer of crude oil and the second highest producer of natural gas, accounting for 30% of the domestic oil supply. Tie that output to jobs and it’s hard to break the bond between oil companies and Louisiana politicians.

Is Gulf Seafood Really Safe?

So what does oil have to do with food? A lot, actually. Many synthetic preservatives, food dyes, flavorings, and pesticides are petroleum-derived. And the problems created by the oil industry in New Orleans are not just limited to one unfortunate disaster like the British Petroleum (BP) spill last year. As Anne Rolfes of the Lousiana Bucket Brigade told us, “The oil industry has an accident problem. I plan to repeat this sentence again and again until it becomes public knowledge.” She went on to say that there are nine oil industry accidents per week in Louisiana and thousands per year. When a conference member asked the panel if they eat the local seafood, Anne and her colleagues sheepishly admitted that they do not, and that, just the week before, a shipment of shrimp had arrived contaminated with oil—a result not necessarily from the BP spill but perhaps from the numerous other accidents that have followed it.

This is probably not something that Chef John Besh (left) and his guest at our dinner, shrimp fisherman Lance Nacio, want me to report, and surely they have their own data to refute it. (I’m guessing it has to do with whether you have a trusted supplier or not.) However, just one day before this trip, the New York Times reported that this year’s white shrimp harvest is all but nonexistent, with some reports saying it’s declined as much as 80 percent. It’s not yet certain that oil contamination is the culprit, but many have their suspicions.

At Besh’s flagship restaurant August, Nacio sat at our table and intrigued everyone with his friendly demeanor and honest assessment of both the seafood and oil industries. When Nacio couldn’t fish because of the oil spill, he worked for BP collecting and burning off the surface oil. He passed around photos of shrimp boats dwarfed by massive plumes of fire and smoke on the water. Nacio is now working diligently to get his sustainable shrimp business, Anna Marie Seafood, back on track, and that includes speaking out at events like this. Chef Besh told our group that he works with people like Nacio not to “eat local” but because it’s the right thing to do, “to teach ourselves to be sustainable and not wait for federal help.”

Maybe its the discipline he honed as a U.S. marine, but Besh’s belief in self-reliance was in evidence again when, in the days after Hurricane Katrina, he cooked rice and beans in a front yard to feed people, and then partnered with emergency reconstruction specialists to create ready-to-eat meals for distribution in the U.S. and abroad. The immovable commitment that people like he and Mayor Landrieu have to this city—that they never even considered living anywhere but New Orleans—is certainly inspiring. In that spirit, Besh sponsors the Chef’s Move! scholarship, which awards a year’s tuition at NYC’s French Culinary Institute to a minority recipient from the New Orleans area. The catch? They have to come back and cook in New Orleans afterward.

The Rebuilding of the Ninth Ward After Hurricane Katrina

Of course, one cannot come to New Orleans and not see the daily reminders of Hurricane Katrina, whether it’s the looming Superdome that provided shelter to so many residents, or some houses in the Ninth Ward that are still—six years after the disaster—boarded up and spray painted with rescue codes for emergency responders.

In 2005, for reasons that are still debated, a levee gave way directly adjacent to the Lower Ninth Ward and more than 4,000 homes were flooded and destroyed. In all, more than 1,800 people lost their lives.

Brad Pitt, who has an affinity both for New Orleans and for architecture, wanted to help. He started the Make It Right foundation to build sustainable and affordable housing in the Ninth Ward that he hopes will become a prototype for other communities. Pitt asked thirteen architects to design various housing models (free of charge) that returning residents could choose from. They had to be environmentally friendly, energy-efficient, and storm-resistant, because no one disputes that the area will flood again. With heavy subsidies from Pitt’s foundation, each house costs $150,000 to build. At this time, about 70 of the planned 200 homes have been built or approved.

Design elements include solar panels, energy-saving appliances, non-toxic materials, and details like the ability to convert rainwater into irrigation for the garden.

The sidewalk is made with a pervious type of concrete meant to absorb water and each house stands at least five feet off the ground.

The “Floating House” is designed to rise and fall with a water surge of up to 14 feet.

With the closest grocery store more than seven miles away (it takes three times longer to get to a store than from any other New Orleans neighborhood), Make It Right also installed community gardens, open to all residents. (Periodically, goats are released to trim the grass.) It was recently reported that plans are in motion to build a grocery store here by 2013.

Looking from the Ninth Ward toward downtown New Orleans

One thing is for sure: a lot of people are working very hard to restore and rebuild this historical place, and it was inspiring to meet with them and understand their passion. Leaving here, you can’t help but want them all to succeed.

Restaurant recommendations:

Commander’s Palace

Domilise Sandwich Shop (po’ boys)

Restaurant Stella
Willie Mae’s (fried chicken)

Dec. 05 2011 |
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